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Q&A: How to talk to your children about a school shooting

Posted by Kristi Palma  December 14, 2012 04:26 PM

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A gunman killed 26 people, including 20 children, at a Connecticut elementary school today. Parents of school-aged children are probably especially on edge, wondering how to approach the subject with their little ones, what's appropriate to say, and how they can handle their own shock and grief with young eyes watching. Moms talked with Louis Kruger, associate professor in the department of counseling and applied educational psychology at Boston's Northeastern University, about how parents should talk with their children about a school shooting. (Photo: Louis Kruger)

krugerheadshot.jpg Moms: We are seeing parents comment on social media about how they are unsure of how to talk about this with their kids. What is your advice?

Kruger: If the kids are aware of it, you have to talk to them about it. What you don’t want to do is give the impression that it’s a taboo subject and they need to keep the feelings to themselves. Moms: How young is too young to talk about it?

Kruger: Even preschoolers, if they bring it up, you can mention, 'This is a very bad thing that happened.' But I think it would also be a mistake to go beyond the obvious facts. You don’t want to embellish on what might have happened.

I think for children that are aware of this and it does have an impact, the primary question in their minds is, 'Can something like that happen to me and where are the adults that are supposed to protect me?' Moms: And what is a parent to say?

Kruger: You remind them that they can trust the people at school and that they are safe at school ... You and I may be frightened by this but we understand this is a pretty unusual occurrence. It’s hard for them to get that concept. [They think] 'Well, why wouldn’t that happen here?' The best we can do is tell them we’re going to do our best to keep them safe. [Tell them] 'You’ve been safe so far and it’s my responsibility and your teachers' responsibility to keep you safe and they’re doing a very good job of that. And if there are times you don’t feel safe, I really want you to tell me about that, I really want to hear it, don’t keep it to yourself.' Moms: Is it OK to say you don't know when a child asks a question?

Kruger: You can. Yes, if you don’t know the specifics. But very often there’s a feeling, a concern, behind the question. It's not details just for the sake of getting details but more along the lines of, 'Gee how can that happen?' Reassure a child that you will do everything possible to keep him or her safe. Moms: Should parents let children watch TV coverage of the tragedy?

Kruger: I think it’s appropriate for adults to control it because you don’t know what they’re going to show on TV. [The TV network] can apologize for it afterward and meanwhile it can scare the heck out of your kid. You are in charge of that environment and I think that’s important.

You don’t want to shield your child from all the realities of life. That’s not going to help them grow up. But you also don’t want to expose them to things that are beyond their emotional ability to comprehend. There is a balance there Moms: What are the signs that a child is not dealing well with tragic news like this?

Kruger: You look for changes in behavior, appetite, if they are agitated, anxious, or particularly quiet. I think it’s important for parents to recognize those kind of indicators and say to the child, 'Is something bothering you?' And to make the child feel comfortable. Moms: How can parents cope with their own grief and feelings of helplessness?

Kruger: I think you need to talk to other adults about it -- trusted others. And share your feelings. It shatters our illusion of being able to keep the world safe for our children. Most of the time that’s true. But it’s events like this, I think, that communicate to us that, yeah, we’re not in total control with keeping our children safe. And that’s a scary thought for adults.

It’s OK to let your child know that you feel sad and upset about this but ... if we’re too blunt, I think, with our feelings, we may frighten our own children.

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Welcome to Parent Buzz, where you can read about and discuss the hot parenting issues of the day, find family-friendly events in Boston and beyond, and get parenting tidbits and tips.

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Kristi Palma, Moms producer, is the mom of a first grader and a preschooler. She is a writer who enjoys cooking her grandmother's Italian recipes (when her son isn't launching paper airplanes into them). Follow her on Twitter @kristipalma.
Jennifer Clark Estes is a teacher, writer, blogger, and the mother of four young children. In her free time, she blogs at A Mom's World, plays with the kids (or chauffeurs them around), and is desperately seeking a quiet spot so she can read a book. Follow her on Twitter @JenniferCEstes.

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